Foucault's Art of Seeing Source: October, Vol. 44 (Spring ...· Foucault's Art of Seeing Author(s):

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    Foucault's Art of Seeing Author(s): John Rajchman Source: October, Vol. 44 (Spring, 1988), pp. 88-117Published by: The MIT PressStable URL: 11-06-2015 17:15 UTC

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  • Foucault's Art of Seeing


    In his book called Foucault, Gilles Deleuze says of Michel Foucault that he was a great seer, a voyant. He declares that Foucault's seeing, and his discussion of seeing, are a constant and central part not only of his histories but also of his thought. He says that those who fail to take this part of his thought into account "mutilate" it to the point where it becomes comparable to analytic philosophy, something "with which it does not have much in common."'

    Deleuze attributes many things to the visual part of Foucault's thought. The territory of the visual spans knowledge, art, ethics, and politics, and so it illustrates why Foucault had no difficulties in dealing with "the relations of science and literature, or the imaginary and the scientific, or the known and the lived."2 The visual is also central to the way Foucault's thought would develop. It is the other component, along with "discourse," of what Deleuze sees as Foucault's "neo-Kantianism," and so it is linked to the theme of the "transcen- dental imagination" in Kant, and to the attempts on the part of Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger to go beyond intentionality to the "opening" of Being. But Deleuze also applies to Foucault the categories of the Danish semiologist Louis Hjelmslev that he had found useful in his study of film. He says that Foucault was a great "audiovisual" thinker, who was "singularly close to contemporary film."3

    I think Deleuze is the first to "see" this side of Foucault's thought and to demonstrate its general importance in his work.4 I will not follow all the intricate

    1. Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Paris, Editions Minuit, 1986, p. 57; English translation forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. One might trace an original view of "vision" in Deleuze's readings of philosophers. Thus, for example, in the '60s, he also presents Spinoza, philosopher and lens-polisher, as a vivant-voyant. Spinoza said that the geometrical demonstrations of his Ethics were as "the eyes of the soul"; Deleuze sees a vital optical method of rectifying those sad passions that ruin life, a way of polishing the glass for an inspired free vision. Deleuze's latest book is about Leibniz and the Baroque. 2. Ibid., p. 59. 3. Ibid., p. 72. 4. In an essay titled "In the Empire of the Gaze: Foucault and the Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought" (in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Cousins Hoy, Lon- don, Basil Blackwell, 1986), Martin Jay provides a useful inventory of some of the places where

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  • 90 OCTOBER

    paths Deleuze gathers together in his analysis. I will try to present what I think Deleuze had in mind in somewhat different terms. I start with Foucault's art of historical depiction.

    Historical Pictures

    Foucault was an exceedingly visual historian. His histories are filled with vivid pictures that stick in the mind. Visualizing events or historical depiction is, of course, an art which itself has a history. Events have not always been visualized in the same way or under the same description. Michelet might be one example. So would a whole aspect of the "new history" with which Foucault associates his work in the Introduction to the Archeology, where an attempt would be made to "turn documents into monuments"-- the preoccupation of the new historians with the "spaces" in which people lived, and the reconstruction of tableaux de moeurs-the sort of thing useful in making "period films."5 But Foucault's pictures are more than such tableaux. They are puzzles that call for analysis. They form part of a philosophical exercise in which seeing has a part.

    A frequent device in Foucault's writing is before-and-after pictures. One is shown a picture from one period and then one from another. Thus the question of how one passed from one system of thought to another is visualized. The device occurs throughout, but is particularly prominent in the two "birth" books, the birth of the prison and the birth of the clinic.

    In Discipline and Punish, one is shown the picture of the excruciating execution of Damiens, regicide, and then a timetable of observed activities. In the Birth of the Clinic one is shown Pomme's bathing cure of a hysteric in which

    Foucault discusses matters visual. But I am not convinced that he succeeds in understanding what is involved in that discussion. His basic idea is that Foucault, like many of his compatriots, was "against vision." Yet it is not clear what he could mean by this. To say that Panoptic surveillance is a "diagram" of a form of power, or that it contributes to making this form of power self-evident and so acceptable, is not to be against vision, or even to make vision central ("oculo-centrism"). Jay seems to start with the hypothesis that a host of diverse French thinkers were united in a sort of conspiracy to "denigrate" the visual, and that, across the Rhine, in German sociology, more "optimistic" views are to be found. If one replaces "the visual" with "the rational" in this fomulation, one finds a familiar pattern of disqualification of contemporary French thought, expounded in a more shrill manner by Apel than by Habermas. For Jay really to join this polemic, he would have to show that the French thinkers in question identified the visual with the rational, or were opposed to the one because opposed to the other. I think this would considerably compound the difficulties or incoherences in the original charge of irrationalism. Failing this, Jay owes some account of what he means by "the visual," and what it would be to "denigrate" or be against it. I discuss Habermas's views in a forthcoming essay for New German Critique. 5. It would be interesting to study in which ways Annales historians have come in fact to contribute to period films. In "Anti-Retro" (Cahiers du Cinema [July 1974]), Foucault discusses such films as Lacombe Lucien and The Night Porter in relation to the "retro-style" in clothes and home decoration. His analysis of the return to previous styles is neither that of "simulation" or empty recycling, nor that of anamnesis.

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  • Foucault's Art of Seeing 91

    the "heat" of her nervous system is "dried out." And then one is shown Bayle's careful examination of the lesions in the brain, that "dingy-looking pulp."

    In both cases we have pictures not simply of what things looked like, but how things were made visible, how things were given to be seen, how things were "shown" to knowledge or to power- two ways in which things became seeable. In the case of the prison, it is a question of two ways crime was made visible in the body, through "spectacle" or through "surveillance." In the case of the clinic, it is a question of two ways of organizing "the space in which bodies and eyes meet." With Bayle, the eye acquires depth, and the body, volume; in examining the brain he is looking into the depths of the individual body where disease is located. Pomme was still looking for that general "portrait" of the disease which allows for the classification of fevers.

    In both instances Foucault links the two techniques of making things visible to a larger conception of seeing in the period. This is one theme in Deleuze-- what he calls visibilite's. There is a history not simply of what was seen, but of what could be seen, of what was seeable, or visible. A "visualization," a scheme through which things are given to be seen, belongs to the "positivity" of knowl